Those who aren't thrilled with the either-or choices here mightwant to listen to Ronald S. Sider. He is an evangelical Protestanttheologian whose new book, ``Just Generosity'' (Baker Book House), hasbeen drawing ``Amens'' from within and beyond the choirs of faith.
Sider belongs to an evolving, eclectic movement of Christianleaders who think they can break the ideological logjam of social policydebate. His book lays out a ``holistic approach'' to what he calls thescandal of widespread poverty in the richest nation in history.
In seeing the problems of poverty, both liberals and conservativesare visually impaired, according to Sider, whose book is subtitled ``ANew Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America.''
``I think it's just blindness, stubborn blindness on the part ofliberals, to deny that wrongheaded personal choices contribute topoverty in this nation,'' said Sider, a Mennonite who is president ofEvangelicals for Social Action, a national organization based inWynnewood, Pa. ``And it's stubborn blindness on the part ofconservatives to deny that structural issues like racism and a varietyof economic systemic factors contribute to poverty.''
He was speaking in this instance of the perpetual arguments overthe causes of poverty. Conservatives usually trace the problems to badchoices, such as having children out of wedlock or abusing drugs.Liberals tend to blame the structures, such as the proliferation oflow-wage jobs.
As for solutions, conservatives stress the need for individualresponsibility and family values, while liberals look to society andgovernment. The either/or choices are typified in the debate surroundingfirst lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1996 book, ``It Takes a Village andOther Lessons Children Teach Us.''
``I'm arguing, let's get beyond this silliness of arguing whether ittakes a village or a family to raise a child,'' Sider said in atelephone interview from his home in Philadelphia. He lives in theracially mixed, working-class neighborhood of Germantown, and teaches atEastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
``If we need anything, we need more wholesome, joyful families wheremom and dad stay together for a lifetime, love each other and raisetheir children. But we need, for that family, not just good familyvalues. They've got to have an income that pays a living wage so theycould have a decent house, health insurance, and a quality education.''
Sider added, ``In a sense, liberals and conservatives are bothhalf-right. And I'm glad to affirm what's right in both and get on withthe solutions that grow out of both.''
Moving from biblical themes--especially the collective obligationto restore the poor to full dignity in community--``Just Generosity''looks at a number of practical solutions. For example, Sider proposesthat the nation embrace a combination of policies aimed at lifting anyfamily in which parents collectively work at least 40 hours a week to120-130 percent of the poverty level.
The income boost, he suggests, can come from an expanded EarnedIncome Tax Credit, which supplements the wages of the working poorthrough the federal tax system; a minimum-wage hike; and refundableDependent Care and Child Tax Credits. He leaves it to economists to findthe right mix of these policies.
In 1998, the latest year for which figures are available, 34.5million Americans fell below the official poverty line--$16,660 for afamily of four. Thanks largely to low unemployment, there were 1.1million fewer poor Americans that year than the year before.
Still, the poverty rate in the nation's longest period of economicexpansion remains higher than in nearly all years of the economicallyturbulent 1970s, and higher than in most industrialized nations.
In addition, the poor have been getting poorer, with 40 percent ofthem living at less than half the poverty level.
Ideologues have sparred over whether government should help the pooror leave that to churches and charities. But that's another false
choice, in Sider's view. He doesn't think charity could or shouldreplace the hand of government, which he sees as biblically sanctioned.Nonetheless he is bullish on the work of faith-based organizations thathave risen to the challenge of welfare reform, meeting the spiritual andmaterial needs of those coming off the rolls.